An Interview with ‘The Spectacular Now’ Director James Ponsoldt

James Ponsoldt (Image Credit: Jim Ponsoldt)
James Ponsoldt (Image Credit: Jim Ponsoldt)

Since hitting the film festival circuit earlier this year, director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now has been gaining steam as an indie/teen movie darling.  The film, about a high school senior named Sutter (Miles Teller), whose hard partying and live-in-the-moment ways begin to be called into question when he meets an atypical girl named Amy (Shailene Woodley), releases nationwide over Labor Day weekend.  In addition to Teller and Woodley, the film stars Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and was adapted to the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber from the novel by Tim Tharp.

The Daily Quirk was lucky enough to score an interview with the rising-star indie filmmaker and director, James Ponsoldt, to talk about The Spectacular Now and his upcoming projects.  I can’t express how delightful it was to speak with James and hear the love and enthusiasm he has for The Spectacular Now and its stars.  In the words of a filmmaker friend of mine, “he’s a big deal.”  However, you wouldn’t know it by speaking with him – he was humble, funny, friendly, and incredibly kind.  Read on to see for yourself…

The Daily Quirk: The Spectacular Now is the first narrative film you’ve done where you weren’t part of the writing team – was it hard to let that side go?

James Ponsoldt: Um, no.  Well, every film that I’ve done before The Spectacular Now was a long process that started with an idea that was highly personal.  I slowly made it into a screenplay; then developed it and made it into a personal piece.  That’s just how I know how to work.  In this case, I was just flattered that people wanted to come to me with a really fantastic screenplay.  I was apprehensive; again, because I’ve been making movies, you know, for a long time.  I started with short films and I had certain way of working, but the script [for The Spectacular Now] was great.  I was really moved by it.  Inevitably in screenplays, whether you write it or someone else does, they are just blueprints.  You change a lot in the film-making, the production and the editing. Things change. You know what I mean?  Like it rains one day and your outdoor scene has to be shot indoors. You don’t have money for 500 extras so you use 10.  Things happen and the script has to reflect that or you could have specific actor that is so good that the whole thing is gonna change.  Anyways, I’m used to that.

When I went to meet with the producers and the writers, I gave them a very specific idea of what the film would look like. I brought a 60 page look book, which was  pretty much exactly digitally what that film was going to look like.  I also told them that I was going to want to reset it in Athens, Georgia, where I’m from, and I was going to want to shoot anamorphic 35 [mm], which is not how people make movies anymore; cast specific actors.  Everyone was incredibly supportive including the writers.  I mean, from the get-go they said, ‘Hey, use us as an ally if you want, and we’ll just make the film you want, whatever you want.’ And because I’m a writer, I really value writers, so I kept them very, very involved.  They were wonderful collaborators throughout because they knew as well as anyone the details of the novel and how the different hurdles and pitfalls when translating to the screen.  It was a wonderful process.  I mean in the future I am excited to continue writing and directing my own films about my own scripts, but I’m also excited to direct other people’s scripts. I really just want to tell the best stories.

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)

TDQ: How did it feel to shoot the film in your hometown?

JP: It was amazing.  It was something I wanted to do for a long time. Gosh, for almost a decade I’ve been trying to make something down there.  My feature was shot in 2005, which I wrote to shoot in Athens. but we couldn’t afford to because there were no tax incentives in Georgia at that time.  So I really have been trying to do it. I love where I’m from, so being able to do that is sort of my birthright, you know?  My first eighteen years were in New York City and I shot there. but as it happens we could set the story here in Athens, GA so it’s kind of what I dreamt about and it really fit this script.  If it hadn’t fit the story, I wouldn’t have wanted to bring it there.  Athens is amazing. It’s a college town. It’s a really art friendly town. It has a really huge indie rock history like REM and the B-52s, Neutral Milk Hotel and where all these other bands are from.  It’s like the people are very unpretentious and very supportive there so if you’re making a movie no one bats an eyelash. And if a celebrity walks by it’s like, ‘Okay, cool.  How can we help?’ People are just nice and laid back. It was really a dream come true that I’m still trying to process.

TDQ: The film won a Special Jury Prize for Acting at Sundance in January – do you feel a sense of pride for the win on behalf of your young stars?

JP: Yeah!  I think the world of Miles [Teller] and Shailene [Woodley] and all the actors. It’s hard casting a movie for me, and I’m sure for every director, but I can only speak for myself.  For me, you’re creating a world so every choice that you make trying to get this screenplay right [matters]. You start talking about the colors and textures and design with your production designer, and what the sound will be like with your music supervisor and composer,  You’re creating a world. It’s a world that is telling a story, but it’s a world you want to live in and you get to live in. you know? And it’ll last forever once you commit it to film.  Populating it with real people is so much fun. I really love the actors that I put in movies; I put a lot of thought into it.  I believe in the actors so much. To see the actors recognized for their enormous talent and really fantastic work they gave and how generous they were with each other, with me, the story, with everyone, it’s really great.  I like seeing nice people and people I really care about be recognized for doing good work.

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)

TDQ: How do you think you were you able to get such astounding performances from Shailene and Miles?

JP: I think I cast the right people and I got out of their way [laughing].  They are really, really talented people. I think I helped facilitate the creative environment where they could be natural and spontaneous and just work at their highest ability.  I didn’t want to be an impediment to them doing their work, I wanted to be a champion and help them.  They’re fantastic actors; that’s not what I do, I’m a director.  Part of what I can do is be a collaborator with them and help create an environment where they can really feel safe to play, to take chances, to take risks and that’s what I did.  I allowed Miles and Shailene to act to their greatest ability.  They were incredibly generous – I will be thanking them to the end of time for being the leads in this film.

TDQ: I understand there are several long takes in The Spectacular Now, Miles has been talked about it in some interviews stating that the ‘walk-and-talk’ scene where he kisses Shaliene’s character for the first time was done in one long five minute take.  What was your motivation behind this method?  Why do you think it was important for the film?

JP: Well, it’s just my style [laughing].  Every filmmaker has a different style and I guess that’s mine.  I love actors, I love great performances, I love actors giving great performances and I love giving them a chance to shine.  The ‘walk and talk’ scene goes from a scene with two kids that are a little bit buzzed and goofy and silly to being a little more honest and vulnerable and emotional to being a little flirty and nervous and ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening?’ and then they’re kissing by the end of it.  It’s quite different than if you piece together a scene from a bunch of close ups, where it is clear that it’s manufactured.  So much of acting, but [also] I think so much in the way we experience life. is in the way that we listen.  When you remember a really amazing conversation you’ve had you don’t remember what you looked like you remember what the other person looked like.  You remember their face when they were listening to you tell a story or you remember the emotion on their face when they were telling you a story.  I think in film when you can have a two shot, two people in the same frame and just kind of reacting to each other and listening and going through a range of emotions it’s really moving.  It requires really fantastic actors. In the case of that ‘walk and talk’, it required a really great crew that can navigate a long ‘walk and talk’ scene through the woods on a wet muddy path just before a thunderstorm.  Everything had to be right for it. but there are a number of long takes in the movie and it’s how I like things playing out.  Not in every scene and it probably wouldn’t be the same in every movie. but it fits the style of this movie.  Where I think, especially movies about young people are so ADD and frenetic and jumpy and twitchy like music videos. here we did something decidedly not at all like that.

TDQ: I understand the film released on August 2nd but only to a limited amount of theaters – do you know if there will be a nationwide release in the future?

JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah!  They have designed it as what is called a platform release so it starts, like most independent films, in New York and/or L.A.  Then after week two, which already happened, it expands to 8 cities and maybe 17 or 18 screens.  Then week 3, which is this week it’ll go to quite a few more. Then it’ll be nationwide by Labor Day.  A movie like this doesn’t have a marketing budget like Elysium or Pacific Rim so we rely on people like you and casual fans that tweet about it and would like to see it to get the word out to people in the middle of Texas or Georgia or California; somewhere that is not L.A.  It has been really successful and word has gotten out and it is really going to expand so everyone can see it, which really makes me happy because I have friends all over the place not just in L.A. and New York.

Director James Ponsoldt and the crew of THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)
Director James Ponsoldt and the crew of THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Image Credit: A24 Films)

TDQ: I read you are now working on a film called Rodham, about Hillary Clinton the early years in Arkansas – can you tell me where are you in the development of that film and/or whether you have any actors attached yet?

JP: Yeah, well it takes place mostly in Washington, D.C. when Hillary Rodham was in her mid-twenties.  It is a very specific short window of time. It’s not like a cradle to the grave biopic that follows a great amount of time, but it’s when she was part of the House Judiciary Committee and a group of bipartisan lawyers in the wake of the Watergate break in that were trying to create a legal foundation to impeach Richard Nixon.  So it’s about people from the left and the right working together trying to preserve American democracy.. Hillary at that point, and her boyfriend Bill that was in Arkansas with whom she had a long distance relationship, was trying to balance her personal life and her career which is very relatable that I’m sure everyone goes through at some point.  It was a screenplay that was written last year, that I didn’t write, and it wound up on the black list, which is a list of the most popular unproduced screenplays- movies like Lars and the Real Girl and Juno were on that.  We’re just slowly developing the script. I mean it was a first draft that got a lot of acclaim, but it was a first draft so we’re just kind of developing it slowly and trying to get the script right.  Movies take a long time to develop so it’s not worth making something until the script is perfect so that’s what we’re doing.  We’re just trying to get the script right and it’ll shoot some time in the next couple years, You don’t really want to rush into a movie, and this [Hillary Clinton biopic] is something you definitely don’t want to get wrong.

TDQ: Also, I hear you are adapting Pippin to the screen – is this true? Are you writing and directing?

JP: Yes, I’m doing the writing, but I’m not going to direct that one. But yeah, I’m adapting Pippin, which is a real honor.  Obviously it’ll be quite a bit different than some of the other things I’ve done, but I’m excited about it.

TDQ: So, I’m going to end with a sort of “fun” question…

JP: These have all been fun questions!

TDQ: Well, glad to hear that!  [laughing]  What was your favorite teen movie growing up?

JP: Hmmm…my favorite teen movie growing up.  If I had to pick one, probably Dazed and Confused. I mean if I’m honest it is the one I watched the most when I was a teenager.  I think it came out in summer of 1993?  I know it came out in ’93, but I could be wrong about the exact time, but I think it came out just as I was going into high school.  I could recognize so many different personality types, so many people in that movie reminded me of people that I knew.  It had great music, the performances were great, everything…the costumes were great – everything just had a really cool vibe.  It’s like a movie you can hang out in and watch endlessly and it never, still to this day, never gets old for me.  It also has a range of emotions; it has goofy funny scenes, it has poignant scenes, it has emotional scenes, I guess it has all the things you would want and it feels effortless like the movie feels so easy and natural and not forced.  I mean, there are so many movies about teenagers that I really love, but if I had to pick one that’s the first one that popped into my brain because it’s probably the one I watched the most.  But we weren’t trying to pay homage to it or anything like that, but its one that I can appreciate.

The Daily Quirk would like to thank director James Ponsoldt for such a wonderful interview!  To find out more about James Ponsoldt, you can follow him on Twitter, and be sure to follow the Official Twitter for The Spectacular Now too! To find out when The Spectacular Now will be reaching a theater near you, check out the film’s Official Site.

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BreAna Hansen studied Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine graduating Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. She won two UCI screenwriting awards while earning her Bachelors and continues to develop screenplays in her free time. BreAna is a member of Women in Film Seattle and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies. She is also the creator and principle writer of A Girl with Glasses, an entertainment blog.

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