James Ponsoldt got our attention at Sundance last year with his film Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as people disintegrating within their addictions. But it was this year at Park City where Ponsoldt really showed what he could do; his new film, The Spectacular Now, is an all-timer coming of age movie, a nuanced, funny and sad story of two young people beginning to deal with the perils and pleasures of growing up. With Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley at the center of a script by (500) Days of Summer duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the acclaimed novel by Tim Tharp), The Spectacular Now is a brilliant and beautiful film that's now playing at select theaters.
I had a chance to talk with Ponsoldt about the movie - I jumped at it.
This is your first movie where you didn't write the script. For a lot of writer/directors, it's a big step to take.
I was hesitant. I was approached by the producers after Sundance 2012, where I had Smashed. I wasn't sure I was interested in directing someone else's script. I respected Scott and Mike, the writers, and I heard the novel was amazing, had been nominated for the National Book Award, but I hadn't read it. I did read the script and it was amazing. It was one of the best reads I've ever had. And I had a really personal take on Sutter - or rather when I read the script I said, 'Wow, this is the script I've been trying to write for years.' The Truffaut Antoine Doinel films were so meaningful to me because they were something I saw at the right time. I always wanted to write something set in adolescence. I read this script and Sutter basically was who I was at that point in my life. I met with the producers and I was, again, very wary, because I wanted to make it in a hyperpersonal way. I wanted to shoot it in Athens, Georgia, which is where I'm from, even though the book takes place in Oklahoma. I wanted very specific actors. I put together a 60 page look book of very specific frames of reference, tonally, that I didn't know would resonate with them. But it was lovely and they loved my take on it.
I tried to force them to say I wasn't the guy, but they didn't! And it worked out very well.
It feels like the more specific storytelling gets, the more universal it becomes.
100%. There's an apocryphal story about Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen when they were making Annie Hall and everybody thought a movie about Upper West Side Jews wouldn't be of interest to the world at large. But if you ground it in enough details... like if you make the most authentic CIA movie. We know, we as audiences are really smart. We're raised on narrative. We know when something breathes of life, as opposed to having flimsy, superficial details that don't need to be there.
But also, stepping back, there are films where people put a democratic value on every part of the process. Location, for instance - in some films location is the heart of the story or totally arbitrary, and we can tell. Either you put a lot of obsession into the specifics or you sink into banal, bland generalities. I don't think that ever works out so well for anyone.
Is the only way you can make a movie is by taking control and making it so personal to you?
Certainly if it's someone else's script. The truth is that if you're making a movie you're living with it so long. My wife can tell you - it becomes part of my life. If it wasn't personal it would be like clocking in to a job at an athletic store for the cash, a job just for the money. You have to fight for everything you love. Think about music, the bands you like. The Beatles were a band that wanted to murder each other for a long time, but for a decade they were able to make these incredible recordings at this pace. It was part of the same tension of guys who were all really amazing, brilliant, genius musicians butting heads because they all cared so much. If they were just phoning it in they would sound like Creed or Nickleback. No diss on Creed or Nickleback, but that's the sound of people who don't give a shit and just want cash and want people to like them. It's not driven by anything specific or trying to transmute or express an inner emotional experience.
But Hollywood is looking for a lot of Nicklebacks and Creeds.
I mean, yeah, but... I've been thinking a lot about the end of coming of age movies, because I made one, and I don't believe... If you look at the narrative of American coming of age movies you have Rebel Without A Cause through Splendor in the Grass through The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti through the John Hughes movies, and for a lot of people in terms of studio movies Say Anything was the last romantic drama that took the characters seriously. And then it sort of stopped. And then stories about adolescents had to be puerile, or about witches and vampires. But I think you people are smart and want to see themselves represented onscreen as they are. I think it's a chicken and the egg thing - they need proof it's profitable. If there's a financial incentive for studios to make those films, they'll make them. For a very mercenary self-interest I want people to see my movie, but I also want people to make these kinds of movies.
And maybe I'm wildly speculating, but I think we've come full circle. You have a ton of studio executives now who will wax sentimental about the Cameron Crowe and John Hughes movies they grew up with, and they have the power to remedy that. You have a generation of filmmakers who were raised on those movies and on Amblin movies but who, when they were 22 in film school, discovered Cassavetes and now they want to make movies with heart and emotion. When I hear about people like Colin Trevorrow doing Jurassic Park 4 and David Lowery writing Pete's Dragon, that's really exciting to me. I want to see more of that, personally as a filmgoer.
You talk about how young people wanted to see themselves onscreen, but Spectacular Now has an R-rating, keeping them out of the theater. Did you walk in knowing this would be an R?
The first time I sat down with the producers and writers I told them, 'This is a beautiful script but this is clearly an R-rated film. We all know this, right?' We live in a reality where if you have the F word twice, you get an R. If you have teen sexuality and drinking, you get an R. We had to be all okay with that. It represents obstacles, having it be R-rated. There are fewer young people, who I think would be served by the movie and like it, who are going to be able to - legally, at least - buy a ticket. They'll find some other way to see it, I'm sure, or hopefully. But they agreed and said that was why they were making it, to make an antidote to shitty teen movies that feel like a middle-aged suit's idea of what young people are like.
Does the fact that you guys all walked in and knew you were getting an R for a movie like this, does that mean the MPAA is a broken system?
That's a pretty good question. Kids came out in 1995; I've seen every Larry Clark film, I love his photographs as well, and they're on the other end of the spectrum. There's a cynical view from old people sometimes that if you're going to make an honest movie about young people it has to be kids on meth raping each other and robbing convenience stores.
We all know the rating system has problems. We live in a very Puritanical society where sex is worse than violence, and we have a total pornography of violence. But we can't have a love scene that respects women. In fact, most sex scenes in movies, I find, are profoundly misogynistic. They're completely from a male point of view and they don't care about her pleasure or empowerment. It's completely backwards - we can have a movie where 20 people are shot to death but say the F word twice you get an R. How does that make any sense to a rational human? And the insularity of the MPAA... I believe in transparency. We're talking about bureaucracies here. I believe in transparency so we can have rational, adult conversations.
That said, we walked in knowing what we would get. We knew we would get an R, and we didn't expect anything to change.
This movie hinges on the leads. Can you talk about how you came to Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley?
When I first read the script I heard Shailene was interested. I had heard she had been meeting on other projects and kept mentioning this one. I loved her in The Descendants - she was perhaps my favorite part of that film. My experience of discovering her with that film was that I didn't know her TV show, so at the beginning of the movie I thought she would be bratty and petulant, and I was kind of annoyed, thinking 'I can't spend two hours with this chick.' And then she had a real transformation and arc and broke my heart and I was like, 'Oh this is a performance. This is a performance like Sissy Spacek or Barbara Hershey would have given thirty years ago. Holy crap.' Actors who lack vanity and who have total dedication to getting performances without BS. So I met with Shailene early on and we became real collaborators. It became all about finding a guy who - she was the cornerstone of the movie - who would be the next person.
I saw Miles in Rabbit Hole and that blew me away. People talk about it as a Nicole Kidman movie and she got the Oscar nomination - rightfully so - but she got the nomination from a few scenes where she got to act opposite Miles. They're gut-wrenching scenes. He feels like a random kid who wandered into a John Cameron Mitchell movie. It's not a showy performance, it's not histrionic or awardsy or fake. He's not talking in strange poetry, like people only do in movies. He's playing a regular kid - a kid who didn't want to cry in front of a middle-aged woman! He couldn't hold his shit together, and it was a really still performance, like a young Robert Duvall or a young Henry Fonda would have given. Then I saw him in Footloose, and he knocked me out in that. He was so funny and dynamic and slapsticky and goofy and reminded me of guys I went to high school with. There was a weird conjunction where I was like, 'Who the hell is this kid?' We ended up meeting and talking for three hours. He's amazing - he's an actor.
With some kids you cast them for who they are in real life, but Shailene and Miles are young, brilliant actors. Those roles people know them from, those are characters they created.