Director James Ponsoldt has made a career with his ability to take nuanced looks at dramatic moments in life. He made a name for himself with the heartfelt Smashed and followed that up with the critically acclaimed The Spectacular Now. His latest film might be his most endearing.
Expanding nationwide in theaters, The End of the Tour follows the real life memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that tells the interaction between author and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky and his interview subject, celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace. The film stars Jason Segel in a dramatic breakout role as Wallace while the ever-reliable Jesse Eisenberg brings his crazed energy and focus to Lipsky as they bounce off of one another. You don’t have to be a fan of David Foster Wallace, let alone know who he is, to be enamored with Ponsoldt’s film. It certainly won me over in a deeply interesting look at what it means to be successful and how that may not actually lead to happiness.
I had the pleasure to speak with Ponsoldt recently over the phone when he visited Austin as part of the press tour and together we talked about his respect for the Austin Film Society, how he got the script and and his love for David Foster Wallace. We also talked about how much impact the weather and snow made on the shoot, and why they wanted the winter so badly. A surprise was to learn just how much of a duality that Ponsoldt has in terms of being familiar with being in front of and behind a microphone, but also the multitude of talents that Eisenberg and Segel have as well and how that directly relates to Lipsky and Wallace.
Additionally, we touch on the nature of the film’s timeline and how it bookends the story with the Lipsky in the film’s present tense as he remembers his fateful days interviewing Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. All told I believe it fleshes out some of the ways that life imitates art and gives you insight into the head space of Ponsoldt and the two main stars during filming without spoiling anything. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The FIlm Stage: First off, I always like to talk a little bit about the press tour. How is your day going?
James Ponsoldt: It’s going well. I got into Austin today and I love this city. I have a number of friends here. Ate some good barbecue down at Iron Works and I’m really excited to do the screening at the Austin Film Society. The AFS has meant so much to me over the years. Before I was even a filmmaker, I was a fan of films and I was a fan of Richard Linklater.
Is he going to be doing the Q&A?
Richard is in New York right now. But he’s been very supportive and generous guy over the years. He means the world to me and his films have really inspired me. Austin is a great city, regardless, but to be able to film something with the Austin Film Society just means the world to me.
Good. Sounds like you are going to have a good time. So, your various films have had a lot of characters that self medicate with alcohol. Whether it is Smashed or Spectacular Now, this is a running theme in the films that you’ve created. Again, this film deals with that though it is more about the period after. But you didn’t seek this film out, right? This was a script sent to you.
Yeah, it was sent to me by Donald Margulies who adapted David Lipsky’s book. Donald had been my playwriting professor years and years before while I was an undergraduate in college. I had stayed in touch with Donald over the years. He had seen my films and I kept watching his plays. I love his writing and he’s a fantastic teacher. When he sent it to me he said in his email something to the extent of, “Hey James, I don’t know if you’re a fan of David Foster Wallace, or if you’ve read this book by David Lipsky, but I’ve adapted it for Anonymous Content who is producing it and we’d love for you to read it.”
I had read Lipsky’s book almost as soon as it came out in 2010 and I was a huge Wallace fan. So it felt like some level of weird synchronicity. It was exciting and nerve-wracking to some degree because Wallace means so much to me. I’m also acutely aware to how much he means to so many other people. I have been into Wallace since I was a teenager. Infinite Jest came out in 1996 and I started the fall of 1997. I was an English major. And even before that, when I was in high school I wrote for an alt weekly in Athens, Georgia. Reviewing concerts and interviewing bands. A lot of the people that wrote for that were grad students or were in older, local bands and they were really into David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction. So Wallace even then was a big fixture in my imagination and just the coolest, smartest, funniest writer out there. And then Infinite Jest was a total game changer for me.
One thing I had heard was that you filmed in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Yeah, mostly in Grand Rapids but also in other small towns in the surrounding area towards Lake Michigan. We also shot a bit in Minneapolis and even in New York City.
So, basically following the book tour almost.
Yeah. What was great about Grand Rapids was that even though Wallace lived in Bloomington, Illinois and he had been teaching at Illinois State and had been raised about an hour away in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is. That was a big part of the story and then when the book tour went off to Chicago and Minneapolis, we needed an area that could simulate a smaller, Midwestern college town and then a big city. Grand Rapids offered so much to us. It was really, really amazing. We had this fantastic crew that came up from Detroit.
So did you have to bring in the snow as well? From what I understand it was very cold there already.
That was the beauty of it. Yeah, one of the reasons we went just about as far north as you can go before you hit Canada was snow. The weather was such an essential element to it. It was never something that I saw as a bleak element. I think so often you see films where snow or ice is played up for some cheap metaphor about existential despair. But in this case, no, that snow was deeply romantic.
Yeah, it was beautiful.
Yeah, beautiful in the way that you watch a Doctor Zhivago or White Christmas, or any number of Scandinavian movies. Especially for Lipsky. This is his story. And this was about how he was affected by Wallace. For him, he was going through this small town that probably to himself to some degree was exotic because he was a New Yorker. But he was also going, strangely, to the center of the literary universe because David Foster Wallace was the most famous young writer in America. Everything for him was heightened. So that snow was vitally important.
It’s always interesting when a film like this has bookends of Lipsky’s present world in the time of the film. All told it lasts maybe all of five minutes. I’m curious how much you expanded or contracted those portions.
It’s pretty true to the structure of the script. It’s a memory story in the sense of the remembrance of things past. Like Proust is a memory story at the beginning of something eating a madeleine cake and remembering a childhood story. It’s almost a cinema parody of someone getting a call about someone from their youth dying. You have this rush of memory and you’re seeing the story from someone’s point of view as they remember it. That was our story. Wallace did deeply affect David Lipsky and it stayed with him all those years.
Digging up those 12 year old tapes I think was a psychic excavation for Lipsky. It brought him back to an earlier period of time when he was a different person. His life was in a completely different place in 1996 than it was in 2008. For him, it brought David Foster Wallace back to life. The Wallace that he knew for a few days. Someone that was gone at that point.
The film revolves around David Lipsky interviewing and creating a profile of David Foster Wallace for a Rolling Stone article. It’s interesting to me that both you, Jason Segel, and Jesse Eisenberg have been in a number of situations where you are being interviewed and it seems to me like this film could be very cathartic.
How much did you allow your own experiences or even the cast’s to seep into the film?
Inevitably you bring all of your own experiences into the film that you’re going to make. In terms of the actors they were really trying to serve their characters as best as they could. Of course they brought their experience into it. Both Jesse and Jason are really great writers as well. They’ve been interviewed a ton but they know what it’s like to be a writer and have to get a story.
Jason writes big movies. We wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I love that film. Jesse writes humor pieces for The New Yorker and plays. They’re really smart guys and have been through it a lot. For myself, I started writing for an alt weekly when I was 15. I interviewed bands all the time. I interned at Rolling Stone later. I thought that I wanted to write about music. And I still write for Filmmaker Magazine today. I’ll interview other directors. So I’ve been on both sides of it and I have endless respect for people that do their jobs well. I know every job, to do it well, is hard, and certainly writing profiles and being a journalist or critic, it’s really hard to do it well. To do it fairly. Originality and intelligence, empathy, and humor. It’s really hard. So I respect how complicated the process is.
And what was interesting in David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky was that we had two people that did the exact same jobs. David Foster Wallace was being celebrated for his novel when he was with Lipsky but his first collection of essays came out the next year. Wallace was as good at writing profiles as any writer alive, I believe. And David Lipsky, at that time at age 30, was one of the most successful young writers in America as well. His first novel came out and it had been well reviewed. He had a collection of short stories. He was writing for Rolling Stone. It wasn’t the kind of success that Wallace had experience with Infinite Jest but there was a lot of it. So both of them knew what the other one was trying to do to some degree. [Laughs] So yeah, they were ping-ponging back and forth and maybe performing for each other but I think Wallace was really trying to be vulnerable and honest. But he obviously knew very well the pressure that David Lipsky was under and the restrictions of the format.
Well, I know I have to wrap with you. As some parting words I just want to tell you that while I’ve read a few things by Wallace like the water commencement speech he gave I really hadn’t explored him. So one, I am definitely a new-found fan, and two, I think there will be plenty more because of this movie.
Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
The End of Tour is now in limited release and expanding.