Born and raised in Athens, Georgia, director James Ponsoldt took a common route to independent filmmaking: Undergraduate degree from Yale, MFA in film directing from Columbia, debut feature at the Sundance Film Festival. But the part where he was then recruited to direct a nine-figure-budgeted superhero movie never happened. His 2006 debut, Off The Black, earned some approving notices for its intimate portrait of a bond between two men generations apart in age, and for Nick Nolte’s lead performance. But it disappeared quietly when its now-defunct distributor, THINKFilm, included it among a vast slate of non-starters.
A full six years later, Ponsoldt has suddenly burst back onto the scene by way of two Sundance premières in successive years, with his name attached to projects as diverse as a Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical Pippin. Last year’s Smashed brought his earthy, naturalistic touch to the story of codependent casual alcoholics (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) whose marriage falls apart when one of them (Winstead, superb as a schoolteacher on the brink) decides to go into recovery. Shot in Athens, Ponsoldt’s new The Spectacular Now, based on Tim Tharp’s novel, is a throwback to open-hearted teen romances of the 1980s like Say Anything…, but complicated again by alcoholism, as well as the imposing prospect of growing up.
Miles Teller stars as Sutter Keely, a charismatic fuck-up whose living-in-the-moment philosophy makes him fun at keggers, but limits his long-term prospects as a student and romantic partner. His girlfriend (Brie Larson) has had enough, but Sutter falls into a rebound relationship with Aimee Finicky (The Descendents’ Shailene Woodley), a sweet, virginal A student who seems destined to be the Bambi to his Godzilla. The two have more in common than it appears, however, and they push each other in ways both healthy and unhealthy. Ponsoldt follows their relationship with sensitivity and insight into their unlikely, powerful chemistry. He talked to The Dissolve about shooting in his hometown, working from a screenplay he didn’t write, and the themes that connect this film with the last one.
The Dissolve: You were at Sundance last year with Smashed, and this year with The Spectacular Now. How did the second film come together so quickly?
James Ponsoldt: It was really fortunate. I don’t think I could have planned for it. The producers of The Spectacular Now approached me really soon after Sundance 2012, when Smashed was there. There was a screenplay for The Spectacular Now. Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber had adapted Tim Tharp’s novel a couple years earlier. And they said, “Hey, we love your movie. Are you interested in reading this script?” I had a bit of hesitancy just because I had never really imagined directing someone else’s screenplay, and I hadn’t really wrapped my brain around it. But I was open to it, because I respected Scott and Mike, and I had heard that Tim’s novel, which had been nominated for the National Book Award, was fantastic. So I read the script, and it was one of the fastest reads I’ve ever had. It was just really fantastic. I’d always been interested in telling a story that dealt with adolescence in a really respectful way—in the way I think Nicholas Ray, or Elia Kazan, or [Peter] Bogdanovich, or [François] Truffaut would have. But I never really wanted to do something that was so nakedly autobiographical, and was kind of just circling the drain on it.
And then this script came along and it really… I mean, Sutter, in the story, really is kind of who I was at that point in my life, which felt really bizarre—that someone else, I felt like, had written my story. So I met with the producers and the writers and told them I had a really hyper-personal way I wanted to make the film. If I was going to do it, I would want to reset it to Athens, Georgia, where I was born and raised, and shoot it in very specific houses and streets where I grew up, and shoot it on anamorphic 35mm. And there were some very specific actors I had in mind. I didn’t know [the producers] would be receptive to any of that, because Tim’s novel takes place in Oklahoma, and a number of things. But they were totally receptive, so it was really lovely.
The Dissolve: Apart from Wuxtry and the Georgia Bar, you don’t really show any obvious signposts from downtown or campus that people who are familiar with the city would recognize. How did you go about using that setting?
Pondsoldt: Well, regional filmmaking is a tricky thing. I think there are some filmmakers, like John Sayles or Victor Nuñez or Julie Dash or Ross McElwee—I’m thinking specifically of regional directors who do the South—and they’ve definitely carved it out and really been interested in the little nooks and crannies. But generally, it’s really hard to get right, I think. And usually when people want to tell a “Southern story,” it’s just broad, and the real signifiers of the South are what stand out. You know—hey, there’s a Civil War reenactment; hey, there’s a Confederate flag; hey, there’s a really bad accent being done by a British actor. And, for me, this story wasn’t about the South, so to speak. When I think of Breaking Away—for people who know Bloomington, that’s definitely Bloomington, and in fact, as you know, the TV show Breaking Away, which was short-lived, was shot in Athens. But it doesn’t read specifically as Bloomington. It reads as, well, this is a college town. You’re aware of socioeconomics a little bit—of “cutters,” or locals, the townies, and then the people at the school. There’s that disjunction, but I think what’s important is that it’s not a major city—it’s not New York or L.A., and it’s not the middle of nowhere.
So I think for me, what was really important was that I didn’t want to show the R.E.M. chapel. I didn’t want to show the arches, or anything that had to do with UGA football, or anything like that. I mean, my family moved to Athens because my father was a professor at the University Of Georgia for over 30 years, so I guess to some degree I relate to the townie, to be blunt about it. [Laughs.] Growing up in Athens, I was always aware that there was a new crop of 18-year-old kids that were just destroying downtown Athens. [Laughs.] Just insane, and piss-drunk, and going down Milledge and just seeing frat kids everywhere, and being aware that there was a really great indie-rock scene. But that wasn’t part of my world. I lived in East Athens. I lived by a Kroger, and I lived kind of closer to Oglethorpe County. And I was aware of it, but it was distant. And for me, this is really a very local depiction, which is say, when you’re 16 or 17, it doesn’t matter if you’re next to the coolest epicenter for music in the universe—you’re not going to have access unless you’re 18 years old and you have an ID. I was fortunate: I started writing for Flagpole when I was 15, so I could get into some of the bars.
The Dissolve: The thing about Athens and townies that connects to Sutter is that it’s a town that’s extremely cheap and easy to live in, and you could live this life where you don’t go to college, where you can make an hourly wage and you go to the Georgia Bar every night. That is a very clear destination for Sutter if he heads off on the wrong path.
Pondsoldt: Oh, yeah. It was something with Smashed as well, which we shot in Highland Park, which is a very specific neighborhood in northeast L.A. that’s rapidly gentrifying, but is also an area where you have a lot of families—mostly Latino families—that have been there for multiple generations. But now you have hipsters on bicycles opening record stores and hip juice bars there. I think of The Comedy [Rick Alverson’s 2012 film starring Tim Heidecker as an aimless misanthrope in Williamsburg, Brooklyn] and I think of people who are 40 or 45, but still behaving like they’re 21. And you’re not sure if it’s an ironic posture, or if they just refuse to grow up. Athens is a great place to never leave and never grow up. I have tons of friends who love Athens… Like, “think globally, act locally”—that type of thing—and really embrace it. But then I have a lot of other friends who are just in different places in life, kind of. [Laughs.] We’re the same age, but they really still party pretty hard. And I think that’s the nature of growing up in a college town. It’s really exciting and invigorating to be in a place where there’s always new 18-to-22-year-olds, but sometimes it can stunt your growth a little bit.
The Dissolve: The other big connective tissue between Smashed and this film is alcohol. There’s a lot of similarities between Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as casual drinking buddies in Smashed, and the two leads here. It’s all good times until it isn’t. Was that an accidental theme, or is this an ongoing concern?
Pondsoldt: [Laughs.] I mean, it is something I think about a lot. With Smashed, that was very much on our mind. That was specifically almost the catalyst for it, was my recognition that I’d been to the third or fourth wedding that year where the bride and groom were both shit-faced at their own weddings. I had a lot of friends that were going into rehab, and Susan [Burke], my cowriter on that, had dealt with the same things, and in fact she had gotten sober in her early 20s. In this case, if I had a little bit of hesitancy with The Spectacular Now, it’s that alcohol was a component of it. The novel is a first-person internal monologue. Sutter’s kind of an unreliable narrator, so it’s tricky to be sure, exactly, what his relationship to alcohol is. It was really important to me that we not hit it too hard in this film. It’s not a message film. It’s not a social-issue film. It’s really just an organic part of who he is, and I think as the context of the story changes, and you realize that…
You know, I think in a strange way, The Spectacular Now is a hair postmodern. Not in its structure, but in the way it deals with gender politics, for instance. [Sutter], when you first meet him, is the charismatic, life-of-the-party guy we’ve seen in a zillion teen films, but I think you slowly realize he’s a delusional kid with a touch of narcissism. He has this false notion of masculinity formed by worshipping an absent father, and he’s not very good to the women in his life—the girls he dates, or even his mother. And the drinking he does… For me, the way he drinks was entirely common to the way everyone I knew drank in high school in Athens. And there were a ton of drugs, too, but we didn’t really hit that in the film, because that’s not what it’s about. But as the context changes, you realize Sutter is anesthetizing himself to some degree. He’s numbing and deflecting and not really dealing with his shit. And putting it off for later potential therapy, I guess. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: So what was involved in casting these two, then getting the chemistry between them right?
Pondsoldt: Shailene had read the script from early on, and I’d seen her in The Descendants, like most people. And when I saw that character in The Descendants, my first instinct was, “Wow, she’s kind of a brat. I can’t spend two hours with this bratty character.” And then by the end of the end of the film, I was like, “Oh my God, she’s amazing. She’s totally how I was at that age.” And she reminded me of a lot of the really strong, brilliant, no-nonsense actresses I loved from the ’70s and ’80s, like a young Debra Winger or Sissy Spacek or Barbara Hershey. And Shailene really has that. She’s very political in her own life, in the politics of being a woman, of how she engages with the world, with the environment, with food. And she has a fierce dedication to honesty. She’s very intelligent. She refuses to reduce a character to types. She was the first person I met with, and I wanted her to play that part desperately. And she was the first really great collaborator I had.
After that, it was finding Sutter—someone who could equal her. I had seen Miles Teller in Rabbit Hole, and I thought he was stunning. That film… I knew the play pretty well, and then when I saw the film, I really admired what John Cameron Mitchell did with it. And I think Nicole Kidman—you know, her Oscar nomination was definitely deserved, but it’s the type of role that gets nominated for an Oscar. She’s grieving and emoting. But I think she really got it because she got to act opposite Miles in those stunning scenes on this bench, and he feels like a kid that just wandered into a John Cameron Mitchell film. A regular kid who’s not being histrionic, not being showy. He’s just internalizing and feeling in the way a young Henry Fonda or Jean Gabin would. And then I saw him again in the remake of Footloose, which is a totally different performance, but wildly charismatic and fun, and injects life into a big studio film. And meeting with Miles, I realized he just was this kid. He completely understood. His imagination is beautiful, and he really got the kid. I loved that they had different energy, and it was important to me that the three of us hung out together before they were both officially in it. Watching them together, they have such different energy, and it was so fun to watch them bounce off each other. And I just hoped to capture that, but not get in the way of it too much.
The Dissolve: The screenwriters also wrote (500) Days Of Summer, but the feel of your film is so much more unvarnished. Is that in the writing or in the direction? What was the extent of your collaboration with those writers?
Pondsoldt: It was huge. (500) Days… I loved their screenplay for it, and Marc Webb is a really talented director. But it’s a very stylized film. I think that’s at the DNA of it. It has a central conceit that’s stylish. The filmmaking is stylish. And that’s sort of just part of it. It really zings. In this case, Tim’s book is heartbreaking and honest and funny and wry, and it has a lot of long conversations. And Scott and Mike—this script they wrote breathes a lot more than their screenplay for (500) Days does. It was a great collaboration. They work without ego, and they essentially were like, “It’s your film now; use us or don’t use us—whatever you want.” [Laughs.] And of course I wanted to, because I’m a writer as well. I don’t want to boot writers off a film. I want to protect them and keep them part of the process.
A big contract I make with the actors, so to speak, at the beginning of a shoot is always, “Hey guys, you can do anything you want in front of the camera. You just have to agree to try anything I ask of you. But we’re collaborators, so don’t shoehorn in anything that you find dishonest, and let’s have early conversations about what we like and don’t like, and let’s make it better. You’re a greater advocate for an 18-year-old than I am, so tell me what you find bullshit-y, and let’s make it more specific. I cast you for a reason.”
So everything about Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, what they bring to it—their own experiences, their own idiosyncrasies, the acne, the scars, whatever it is about them—that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to obscure that. I mean, all my favorite films, I think the filmmaker—whether it was a [Robert] Altman or [Paul] Mazursky or [Hal] Ashby movie—was always hunting down those happy accidents. Those little flourishes of honesty, in a medium that is fundamentally very planned out. It has to be—you have a call sheet, and a crew, and people show up, and you know exactly what scenes you’re going to shoot, and then I try to set the stage for really messy stuff that feels like life. So in that way, I try to give the actors a lot of autonomy, which I think can be a little disorienting to the actors at first. But once they realize I’m not going to micromanage them, they really embrace it and feel a sense of agency, and a fierce protection of these characters, and their BS detector goes high, I think.