Off the Black, James Ponsoldt‘s feature debut as a writer-director, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, when Ponsoldt was nearing his thirties. It would take him six more years to produce another feature, and another Sundance debut, with 2012’s Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as a married couple bonded (and subsequently threatened) by increasingly severe alcoholism. Smashed didn’t reach $400,000 domestically, but the film’s miniature budget (most estimates put it around $500,000) surely helped quell the sting of that predictably low number, and Ponsoldt’s intimate work with Winstead, Paul, and an accomplished supporting cast wasn’t lost on reviewers and industry players alike.
Fast-forward a year later, and Ponsoldt is back at Sundance with another acclaimed new film: The Spectacular Now, starring two promising young actors in Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). The movie’s young-love trailer might have you believe this is a simpler, easier film than Smashed, but in a lot of ways, it’s even more uncomfortable, transferring as it does what seems to be Ponsoldt’s signature subject (alcoholism) to the world of high-school romance. But with a red-hot distributor in A24 (The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers), and an on-the-horizon Hilary Clinton biopic in the works, it would appear as if Ponsoldt, after nearly a decade of fighting to break through, has finally landed a stable position in the mainstream. We got a chance to sit down with the emerging director recently and one can check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: Can you talk about the writing process of the film? You’re usually the writer of your own films, but that’s not the case on this one: not only are you working from a script you didn’t write, but that script itself is based on a novel. Which of the two did you first come across?
James Ponsoldt: Well, I had a movie called Smashed that was at Sundance in 2012, and right after the festival, the producers, who had seen Smashed there, said, “Hey, we really liked your movie. Would you be up for reading this script?” And I’d never been interested in directing someone else’s script before, but I knew the writers [Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber] from (500) Days of Summer, and I’d heard of Tim Tharp‘s novel, which had been nominated for the National Book Award. I heard it was amazing, and it was one I’d been meaning to read. So I was like, “Sure, I’ll give it a read.” And it was one of the quickest things I’ve ever read—an hour, maybe. And for the first ten pages or so, I didn’t know if I liked this guy: he’s kind of an alpha-male, and I didn’t think I wanted to glorify this guy. And then the character and the story just sort of took a left turn when he meets this girl. It just started to surprise me. It had a ton of depth and emotion. It felt kind of vaguely postmodern—not in its construction or in its narrative, but in the characters and the way it dealt with gender politics and the way boys sort of mythologize their fathers. And it was kind of me at that point—kind of like, “Holy shit, this is exactly who I was at that age, and it’s kind of horrifying.” [Laughs.]
Then I met with the producers, and I had a very, very specific way that I was going to make someone else’s script, which was to make it as personal as possible. I wanted to shoot it in my hometown, Athens, Georgia; cast specific actors; and shoot it on anamorphic 35mm. And they were things I thought [the producers] would maybe justifiably balk at—I wanted to give them every reason to say, “You’re not the right guy.” But they were like, “We want to work with you, and we want to you to make it exactly how you want.” And I said, “Wow, okay. This is going better than I predicted.” It came together in a really lovely way, which will probably never happen again in my life. [Laughs.]
Were there any major differences between the book and the screenplay?
I read Tim’s book right after I read the script, and it was stunning. The book is a first-person internal monologue: it’s Sutter [Keely, Miles Teller’s character] telling his story, so he’s therefore kind of unreliable a little bit, probably self-mythologizing and [being] a bullshitter. [Laughs.] Which he is in the movie, too. So a lot of that was internal, and it had to be externalized for the script. As far as the vibe and tone of the story, the value system, and the dialogue, [the script] is pretty true to [the book]. The biggest difference is that the book ends a bit differently. It’s still true to the story, but it kind of ends on a bleaker note. I think the film doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, [but] there’s a glimmer of hope there. It’s not like redemption, it’s not like someone has changed in an unrealistic way, but there’s still a glimmer.
You mentioned how much you didn’t like the character at the beginning, which is interesting, because you have your title card come in about ten minutes into the film. Was that the exact dividing point for you? And I can’t remember the Smashed title card at the moment—was that one also delayed?
The one in Smashed I think comes in later. For this one, as the edit got tighter, it changed: I think at first it was around the ten-minute [mark], then it was eight, etc. I think now the title card for The Spectacular Now is actually maybe about six minutes into the film. Smashed was a little bit longer—I think it was eleven minutes. So it’s this thing I’ve done now, and, I don’t know, it kind of fits.
Like Smashed and The Spectacular Now, your debut feature, 2006’s Off the Black, premiered at Sundance. Have you noticed any changes in the festival culture there since you attended seven years ago?
I’m sure my timeline is off, and I’m sure other people who know the history of indie-film acquisitions and distribution will debate this, but I think the major change came sort of around 2008, when everybody lost their money in America. And there was also that thing where it was like, “Indie film is dead. Nobody’s going to buy them anymore.” There was that talk. I went to Sundance a couple years during that time as a journalist for Filmmaker Magazine, and that was kind of something that people were talking about: are people going to buy these movies? Because people had grossly overspent on a number of films—paid a ton of money, and didn’t make it back. And that’s always kind of a story you hear: “is this the year Sundance is back? Is this the year it sells out?” You hear it almost every year. Sometimes there’s some truth to it, but [mostly] people create narratives out of the identity of two or three films that probably have nothing to do with each other. But maybe [they do]—I’m not a sociologist who can articulate how you separate a zeitgeist from disparate things.
But the way that movies are covered, and just the way the news cycle works, has changed. Even in 2006 with Off the Black, it was like, you premiere your movie, and then you wait for a review. You wait for Variety, or for The Hollywood Reporter, and it’s a big deal; distributors are waiting to see those reviews. But now—the thing that I was aware of with Smashed, which is what’s changed so much—the second the movie is over and the credits are rolling, the dark room just lights up with iPhones, and it’s a room full of people tweeting about the movie. It’s incredibly democratic. It could be someone who’s the main critic for the Village Voice saying, “Just saw XYZ movie; thumbs up, liked it, didn’t like it, happy emoticon,” or it could be a 13-year-old girl from Utah. It’s incredibly powerful, it’s incredibly instantaneous, it doesn’t require, like, three days of thought from a journalist constructing a piece. So that’s different. It’s a bit exciting; it’s a bit horrifying. [Laughs.] Because you spend a long time working on a movie, and [those few seconds] can help or hurt the fate of a film. But it is what it is. I’m not going to say if it’s good or bad; it just is. That’s the nature of life now.
To go back to Off the Black for a second, can you just give a quick synopsis of that film? I haven’t seen it, but from what I understand, it’s about an alcoholic—a subject that, to varying extents, is also central to both Smashed and The Spectacular Now.
Yeah. It’s about a high-school baseball umpire; Nick Nolte plays him. He catches a teenage kid vandalizing his house, and [there’s] this kind of funny-sad relationship that develops between the two of them. He basically catches the kid and scares the shit out of him, and is like, “I’m going to call the cops and your parents.” But they kind of work out this deal where he tells the kid if he comes back and repairs the damage to the house, then he won’t rat him out. And this relationship begins that kind of lives in this grey area: you could have a much more cynical, bleak film that would probably be about a child molester, and you could have a schmaltzy, sentimental [version] where it’s like, “Oh, they save each other!” [Laughs.] And this film walks a much lonelier kind of line between two people who need something and get something ephemeral from each other.
It sounds very interesting. And it’s available on DVD?
And as long as we’re talking Nolte, I assume you’ve seen Paul Schrader‘s Affliction, which also stars Nolte as a troubled man with his share of booze-related problems.
Yeah, I mean, I’d seen that, and Nolte’s [just] so good. He did that I guess in ’97 or ’98. He’s amazing at giving these super-intense performances, but he’s also one of the funniest [actors]—I find him so funny, going back to 48 Hrs. I just find him to be so ultimately riveting: he’s capable of scaring the living shit out of you, giving these really scary, perverse, funny performances. He’s one of my favorite actors, one of these [people] who is just kind of singular and feels alive in comedy, drama, and [everything] in between.
Speaking of actors, it’s notable that, over the course of your three features, you’ve worked with progressively younger demographics: first with Nolte on Off the Black, then with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul on Smashed, and now with the high-school characters of Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now. Have you felt the need to change your approach when working with actors of different ages?
And in the next [film] we’ll be talking babies! [Laughs.] I think there’s a difference if you’re working with trained or untrained actors. In Smashed and Off the Black there were kids—like, legitimately, young children, such as the kids in Winstead’s class. And it’s different if someone is not a professional actor. But I think people like Miles or Shailene (who are in their 20s) or Nick (who’s around 70 now) are all real professionals, and they have [these] brilliant imaginations and great senses of dramaturgy. And part of the reason we’re working together is because I love them as actors, and I love their take on the character. I just try to respect the character and not judge them, and it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re 16 or 60.
What I liked about the casting of Teller and Woodley is that, even though they’re young, the roles go a bit against their breakout performances. For instance, it would’ve been easy for someone to see Rabbit Hole and think, “Hey, Miles Teller would be great for this introverted-adolescent role I’m writing.” But this is totally different. Was it at all an active decision on your part to assign roles with this semi-against-type mindset?
Well, I loved [Miles] in Rabbit Hole, but I also loved him in the remake of Footloose, where he’s playing the Chris Penn role. He’s just hilarious and dynamic. And I definitely had friends like that in high school. And there was a weird disjunction between his performances. I was [thinking], “Who is this kid?” [Laughs.] On the one hand, he feels like a totally regular kid—there’s a level of naturalism where he’s not some hipster-emo kid just playing the boy next door. He feels like guys I knew growing up in Georgia. But then I met with him, and [realized] he’s a serious actor who went to NYU and studied acting; [Rabbit Hole director] John Cameron Mitchell discovered him out of there. And there just aren’t a lot of people like him.
But I do love actors who have that range. I mean, Brie Larson—I loved her in Rampart, where she just gives this intense performance acting opposite Woody Harrelson. And then I love her in, like, 21 Jump Street or United States of Tara, where it’s just like, “Holy shit, she can do anything!” And this is true for other supporting characters, too. Like Andre Royo, who played Bubbles on The Wire—in this, he plays Sutter’s teacher. And The Wire is, like, the greatest show ever—it’s epic and gut-wrenching, and [Royo] gave this kind of comic performance on that. And across the board there are actors like that: Bob Odenkirk, who’s on Breaking Bad, plays Sutter’s boss in the menswear store, and he’s also one of the great comedians we have. I like actors who can bring levity to serious drama, or who can ground silly comedy, so [when] you populate a world with them, it doesn’t telegraph to the audience, “This is an indie drama” or “This is an indie comedy.” [Laughs.] It’s like, no, life isn’t dramatic or comedic—it’s somewhere in between.
In terms of your preferred aesthetic or style, there a number of striking long takes in The Spectacular Now, whereas Smashed, as I recall, was more erratic and claustrophobic in its handheld look, since the characters were always moving around rooms and arguing and shouting at each other. Was it shooting in your hometown that inspired this more organic, calm feel, or was it always the form you had in mind?
Yeah, I think every story has its own needs. I mean, we shot Smashed on the [Arri] Alexa, and there was a lot of indoor stuff. That was a story about an alcoholic, very specifically, and the goal was not to objectify the character, but to make you identify with her, so we really put you [in close] to her as much as possible. So it had a very specific feel. The Spectacular Now is a story about adolescence, and when you say “teen movie,” people are like, “Oh, so it’s going to be a handheld, found-footage movie!” [Laughs.] [So] we actually tried to dignify these characters, and hopefully people in twenty years won’t even say it’s a teen movie—they’ll say it’s a really romantic movie, or a really moving drama where [the characters] happen to be teenagers. The goal was to really give a sense of place—these aren’t kids growing up in Manhattan or in L.A. They exist in this specific time and place.
Returning to Off the Black for, I promise, one final time, I was intrigued to learn that it was shot by Tim Orr (George Washington, All the Real Girls), as The Spectacular Now, with its natural light and woodsy backdrop, often looks like one of the films Orr shot for David Gordon Green.
Yeah, I love David’s films and everything Tim shoots. The DP for The Spectacular Now was Jess Hall, who’s a British DP, and shot a couple films that I really loved—most specifically, Son of Rambow, which was a really moving, amazing movie. And everything he does he usually does on anamorphic 35mm. He also did Hot Fuzz. And he just shot [Transcendence], Wally Pfister‘s directorial debut. That just wrapped. He’s an amazing DP. And we share a value system of using natural light as much as possible—having things feel both very natural and also cinematic. And that’s what we wanted for this movie—to dignify these characters, and not have [their story] feel cheap or like a home movie.
I saw The Spectacular Now the other day with Jordan Raup, the editor-in-chief of our site, and he mentioned that the new cut had a song at the end that wasn’t on the Sundance cut.
Yeah, we changed the song during the end credits. There are a couple songs throughout the movie, but it’s mostly score and then there’s diegetic music in it. There were a few scenes where there was music from Georgia-based bands. The song that’s on the credits now is Phosphorescent, which is another Athens-based guy who lives in Brooklyn now.
Were there any other changes made since Sundance?
That was the only big one. The music elsewhere stayed the same. We did change a few things on the sound design. After [the film] was bought, we had this great opportunity where A24 was like, “If you want, we can give you a couple more days.” So we had an opportunity to make a few tweaks, because, on a low-budget movie, you [only] have five or six days for a sound mix; a reel a day, basically, whereas a big studio movie would have around twenty-five days. So we changed the sound design a little bit, but it’s fundamentally the same.
The Spectacular Now opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 2nd, and will expand throughout the month. Click here for the film’s rollout schedule.